Tuesday, September 22, 2015

With wars and conflict in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and elsewhere dominating headlines, let us not forget the ongoing war in the Nuba Mountains. Many call it the Silent War because so little of the world’s attention is focused on what is going on there.

For over 30 years, this region of Sudan has been targeted by so called “government” forces in Khartoum. The people of the Nuba Mountains are mixed Christian, Muslim, and Animist. Khartoum repeatedly forces their version of Islam on all of Sudanese society, including other Muslims who do not share their radicalized interpretation. And it is bombing, attacking, and denying humanitarian aid to the peoples of the Nuba Mountains.

I have a deep connection to this part of the world. My great aunt was a nurse from Washington state who married a surgeon. They both wanted to serve the people in Africa, so they moved to Sudan and opened a medical clinic in the 1930s. Both my Great Aunt and her husband were killed during WW II when bombs hit their clinic. They were some of the first victims of aerial bombardment in Sudan. They are buried adjacent to the clinic that they founded in Doro, South Sudan.

When I worked for Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia—no matter who was in the White House—we sent letters to Presidents and to whoever was Secretary of State , including photographs of the victims of Khartoum’s aerial bombardment on the Nuba mountains: bloody corpses of innocent women and children, who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was 15-25 years ago. The aerial bombardment by Khartoum against innocents, continues continuing today.

I recently was in the Nuba Mountains to evaluate conditions in this war-torn region. My guide and I were looking across a valley when we saw children running away from a water hole. My guide looked up in the air and said, “They must be running from an Antonov bomber from Khartoum.” We glanced around the skies saw the outline of a bomber and heard its engines. We watched it for a few minutes until my guide said, “We had better take cover.” We hurriedly climbed into a crevasse in the rocks as the plane circled overhead. After several minutes the plane stopped circling and moved away.

Others that day were not so fortunate, as this Antonov dropped its deadly cargo and flattened several villages that were still burning when I visited them. A mother of several children died when the bomb exploded 20 feet away. I met her widowed husband, her grieving parents, and the confused toddlers who had just lost their mother.

This happens every day in the Nuba Mountains with a ferocity that is difficult to imagine. Fighter planes suddenly zoom overhead and drop 1,000 pound bombs on villages, leaving craters 30 yards across and 20 feet deep. Families are burned to death in their huts as they sleep. During daytime raids, the people shelter in fox holes. Thousands have been living in caves for years because they know that if they return home and rebuild, the bombs will come. Crops are laid to waste so frequently that farming is nearly impossible and most of the region faces starvation.

All of this human suffering is directed by an indicted war criminal who unlawfully seized power in Khartoum decades ago. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the only sitting head of state indicted on war crimes, wants to make everyone in his territory adhere to his radical version of Islam. He refuses to cede his power or admit his crimes.

Much of the world has turned its back on this war. Bashir prevents media and aid groups from entering the region. But it is a war that must be seen and recognized for what it is: religious persecution; the massive and regular targeting and slaughter of innocent civilians; and a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions.

Dr. Tom Catena, an American doctor, is the only surgeon in the Nuba Mountains. He works tirelessly, day and night, treating all ailments, war injuries, and starvation. He knows firsthand of the suffering of the Nuba people. He and his small team have been tending to the victims of Khartoum’s bombs in the Nuba Mountains since 2010.

Hundreds come daily to his Mother of Mercy Hospital, which is supported by the donations of the supporters of the Sudan Relief Fund,. Most come on foot, others arrive in the backs of trucks or carried in their loved ones’ arms. They come to this small hospital with shrapnel wounds, burns, and worse. They are sick, hungry, and traumatized by years of persecution and war. These are the victims of a religious persecution carried out by the fundamentalist Islamic government of Sudan—and forgotten by the outside world.

• Mr. Dettoni is Senior Advisor to the Sudan Relief Fund, a 501 (c) (3) that has been providing relief and assistance in the Nuba Mountains and South Sudan for more than 15 years.

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